Chuck Leonard Tribute For The 40th
Anniversary Of His First Show At WABC
Sept. 6, 2005
By Scott Benjamin
Forty years ago tonight, a skinny guy with a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois and seven weeks of experience in The Big Apple at WWRL, became the first African American air personality on a major market Top 40 station.
Chuck Leonard debuted in the 11 p.m. to midnight slot on musicradio77 WABC and would continue working late nights and Sundays at the station through Nov. 27, 1979.
Following his departure, he continued in New York City radio for more than 20 years, finishing his career on the soul channels of the Sirius satellite network.
Tragically, Chuck died on Aug. 12, 2004.
In recognition of the 40th anniversary of this first show at WABC, several of his colleagues and friends offered tributes to "The Best That Ever Did It And Got Away With It."
Chuck Leonard, from an interview with musicradio77.com at Kennedy's on West
Manhattan, Nov. 29, 2002
Chuck Leonard - who for decades has been one of the smoothest and most personable air personalities in "The Greatest City In The World" - had been doing the evening shift at WWRL, a rhythm and blues station, for five weeks when he received a phone call from a competitor.
"Yeee, this is Cousin Brucie," the voice said that day in the summer 1965. "I want you to talk to my boss, Sklar."
Having grown up in Chicago and then graduating from the University of Illinois in Champaign, Chuck had picked up signals from as far away as Buffalo, where he had listened to Joey Reynolds at night, but he had never heard of WABC, even though it was emerging as the biggest Top 40 station in the country.
At the time, Chuck just dismissed it as someone in the record industry who was seeking a favor. "I had heard all kind of horror stories about how they try to get you under their spell and get favors from you," Chuck said, alluding to the payola scandals that had been the subject of a congressional investigation just five years earlier.
Since arriving in Gotham, he already had received calls from Music Galore, a young female listener in New Jersey, and Big Daddy, who owned theaters in Harlem.
"Well now I've heard from Cousin Brucie," he thought. "And he even has a boss, a guy named Sklar." He didn't show up for an appointment with the late Rick Sklar, the brilliant program director who was on his way to leading WABC to an audience of 5 million listeners per week. The next day Chuck received messages from Mal Goode, the ABC United Nations correspondent, Roy West of NBC News, Bill Tatum, the publisher of the Amsterdam News, and Cecil Holmes, the vice president of Casablanca Records.
"All of them were saying, 'Go see this man,' " he recalled during an interview in Nov. 2002 at Kennedy's on West 57th Street in Manhattan.
He took their advice but declined to accept a position as Musicradio 77's overnight air personality. "I said, 'Thank you very much, but no thanks,' " Chuck said.
He felt some allegiance to WWRL since the management of the station had brought him to New York City after he had been on the air in Baltimore for a little more than a year. Besides, the station was doing several shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, which was a major venue for the top soul artists. WABC was offering more money but not so much that he felt he could be a " 'Benedict Arnold' " to WWRL, he recalled.
Chuck already had rocketed from the copy desk at the now-defunct Washington Evening Star to the biggest radio market in the world in the two years since he had graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Illinois.
At the newspaper he took dictation, handled minor assignments and worked on the copy desk, where his boss was Carl Bernstein, who 10 years later would earn a Pulitzer Prize, along with Bob Woodward, his colleague at The Washington Post, for exposing the Watergate scandal that ultimately drove former President Richard Nixon from office.
"Carl and I were friends at work and then we became personal friends," said Chuck, who noted that Bernstein is much nicer than how he was portrayed in the 1976 Academy Award-winning film, All The President's Men, which was based on the two reporters pursuit of the Watergate story. Chuck had been program director at his college radio station, WPGU, which stood for Parade Ground Unit after the Quonset hut where it was located.
A college fraternity brother helped him get an audition at WEBB, a rhythm and blues station in Baltimore, a short time after he began working at The Evening Star.
For a while he worked at the newspaper until 2 p.m. and then would drive about 40 miles to WEBB to do his late afternoon-early evening shift.
After six months he was making more money at the radio station than he would have been earning after seven years at the newspaper, unless he had a syndicated column.
"At that point, it was who's kidding whom," he said. "If this is where your talent is." He left The Evening Star and concentrated on his radio career.
He said he had been on the air in Baltimore for a year when, members of the chain that owned the station asked him to move to WOL, its station in Washington.
But they quickly changed plans and sent him to WWRL, its flagship station in New York City. Initially, he was to take the overnight shift, but after Frank Ward, the station manager, heard him do some fill-in shifts, he gave him the evening show.
That didn't sit too well with the late Frankie Crocker, who was then doing the overnight show and had just announced on the air that he would be taking over the more prestigious evening slot.
"I had been in New York two days and I had made my first enemy - Frankie Crocker," Chuck recalled. Crocker, who would star for many years at WBLS-FM, immediately left to take a position in Los Angeles.
Chuck's stay at WWRL lasted seven weeks.
Dan Ingram, the legendary WABC afternoon air personality, heard Chuck on the air and recommended him to Wally Schwartz, the station manager.
Chuck received another call from Sklar after he had turned down the station's initial offer. Soon after as he came off the elevator at the ABC building on the Avenue of the Americas he was intercepted by a photographer.
"Are you Chuck Leonard?" the photographer asked.
"Why, yes I am," Chuck replied.
The photographer took him into the record library for some publicity shots.
A short time later Sklar saw the publicity shoot, which was supposed to happen after Chuck had actually accepted the job, and brought him into his office.
"If they already had a photographer there for publicity shots, I knew I was in a strong negotiating position," Chuck recalled in a phone interview in January 2003.
However, he again declined, saying he had a better shift at a station that he respected.
"This is the biggest rocker in the country," Sklar exclaimed.
Finally he "gerrymandered" a shift from 11 p.m. to midnight from the existing schedule and gave him a Sunday show from 4 to 9 p.m.
Moments later Chuck told Schwartz that, "I have accepted this job. I don't want to be an experiment," alluding to Sklar's comment that there hadn't previously been an African-American on a Top 40 station in a major market.
"If I can't contribute as an everyday member of the staff, I don't want to be here," he told him. "I think I won Wally's respect. He shook my hand and said, 'I can assure you you're here because we like your sound.' "
"In the 1960s, I had almost become wealthy," Chuck recalled, noting that he had tripled his salary within two years. "I went home looked in the mirror, and said, 'You are some kind of guy,'" he recalled with a laugh.
"Aretha the right-rocking Franklin, for Suzie and all the guys at Hofstra. Happy New Year's, fellas. 24 minutes . . . 34 minutes away - I'll get the clock right - 34 away from 1969. Do it, to it." Chuck Leonard, musicradio77 WABC, Dec. 31, 1968
Pamela Leonard, wife of Chuck Leonard, fax message, Sept. 2, 2005
"I grew up in a small town about 20 miles south of Louisville, Ky. Every Sunday night our family watched The Ed Sullivan Show.
"This particular evening began as usual with dad spreading newspapers on the floor and lining up our shoes to be polished for the week and mom sewing buttons and mending.
"My brother and I were just hanging out. As usual, Mr. Sullivan promised us a really big show.
"Then four young men from Liverpool, England jumped onstage. As the Beatles sang, I moved closer to the TV screen and my brother turned the couch into a trampoline.
"Dad made fun of the group's name: The Beatles. Mom pointed out that they kept singing the same thing over and over. They both hated their hair.
"After the show I stared at mom and dad in amazement. How could they be so wrong? I felt a shift in my reality and later learned I had entered the generation gap.
" It was February 1964 and I was in the fifth grade. The next morning our teacher had a really tough time getting us to calm down for school.
"The boys were playing air guitar and the girls were talking about which Beatle they liked best. A couple of weeks later, most of the boys had the Beatle haircut and the girls had chosen their favorite Beatle.
"One of the boys had an older brother who listened to 77 AM and he said that they played a lot of Beatles songs way into the night. And that's how I started listening to WABC radio.
"Of course we got the signal! But not all at once. It kind of floated in on the dusk. Over a 20-minute period our local radio station (WHAS or WAVE?) began to weaken, their signal waving in and out as WABC was heard almost underneath them. Finally WABC's echo chamber strength reached down from New York to wake up our night.
"Before we were old enough to ride in cars with boys on dates, my girlfriends and I had Friday night slumber parties. After we exhausted our supply of 45s, we tuned to WABeatleC. When we went to basketball away games, the whole fan bus sang along to WABC.
"I remember one night in particular when I was on that fan bus and we were stunned to hear WABC news report that three astronauts had burned up in their capsule on the launch pad. The music began, like always, at the top of the hour, but we all were silent.
"There was something soothing about the tight structure of the top 40 format. Our country went through some chaotic times: the assassinations, riots, demonstrations, Vietnam War, Watergate and presidential impeachment; and remember the sadistic draft lottery? Yes, WABC gave you news at :55, but no matter how terrible things got, the #1 song always followed the news.
"Chuck came on the air at 10 p.m. Central Standard Time. Although I did not retain his name at the time, he provided the soundtrack to the drama of my adolescent life.
"By 1971 I had the freedom that comes with a driver's license and a car (well, my parents' Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon. At least it had a good radio.) I loved driving narrow country roads and listening to music.
"I remember one night in particular I was having boyfriend troubles, so I drove on a road where the trees made a chapel overhead. I was full of teenage angst while the guy on the radio seemed so unrelentingly upbeat.
"I yelled at him: 'What are you so happy about?' Don't you know that (so and so forth). Why don't you shut up already and play a sad song!'
"I had just had my first argument with my future husband. Yes, it was a hair-raising moment when I realized, almost a decade later, that my future husband had provided the music and had been in the car (sort of) while I was dating. Well that's a story for another time.
"It's been said that Chuck was the DJ with a smile in his voice. He was upbeat. When I met him I found out it was his nature to be curious about everything.
"He remained always open to new ideas, technology and pop culture trends. Instead of being intimidated by computers, he wanted one. So, in 1983 he bought a PC, modem and printer. He was online and ready to prep the Chuck Leonard show in an all new way.
"Preparation. Yes, who would have thought that the DJ who made it sound so easy was serious about having something to say? Yes, he was good at introducing a song. His left foot counting out the beat as he read copy or improvised. He was brilliant at talking up to the post but never stepping on the song.
"Chuck's whole life was preparation for his show. He read everything on subjects of music, sports, politics and current events. Chuck was born in Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois. He received a degree in Journalism. His first experience in broadcasting was on the student radio station where he hosted a nightly jazz program. He also worked at a local classical music station.
"Working in diverse formats prompted the preparation routine which served him so well in his long career. In fact, he worked every genre of radio broadcasting except country/western.
"When Chuck wanted to remember something he would align it with alliteration or an acronym. When passing along his nuggets of wisdom to his daughters he spiced it up like this: 'The Six P's: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
"All of his skills came together when he hosted "The Wake-up Club" for KISS-FM in the 1980s. A new decade, a new radio station, and a new Chuck.
"He escaped the experiment of being The First, and reinvented himself. As a kid he read comic books and westerns. He thought he would have been a great riverboat gambler. So we went to Stetson to buy a hat.
"Chuck often expressed how lucky he was to have found a career where his special brand of insanity was thought to be brilliant and he got paid for it, too! Really, he said, when you think about it, I sit in a room by myself and talk.
"He was one of the few who could get out of that room and onto a stage with a live audience.
"He was genuinely interested in every person who crossed his path. He couldn't understand people who said they were bored. He always had a party going on in his head.
"At KISS-FM he started taking that party on the road. He started with a small, but legendary club, The Copacabana, at Fifth Avenue and 61st Street.
"The old ballroom Roseland on West 52nd Street became our second home during the disco years. Ok, I hear you groaning because I said disco? Hey, some of it was fun music!
"At Roseland he introduced new acts, like a young woman who called herself Madonna, but dressed in black garbage bags.
"He enjoyed good crowd response when he introduced Kool and the Gang at Avery Fisher Hall and got a personal laugh out of getting to stand on stage where the New York Philharmonic Orchestra played because he played the radio.
"My favorite event was when he emceed Stevie Wonder at Radio City Music Hall. Stevie always recognized Chuck's voice.
"Chuck got big respect in our home when he hosted a live show with The Muppets from Sesame Street at the Forum (Daughter Diana was about three years old then.) He also worked upstairs at the main even: Madison Square Garden. He hosted Janet Jackson's first New York concert.
"For several years he was host of the Budweiser Fest at Madison Square Garden. And every little boy's dream was fulfilled when he was guest ringmaster of Barnum & Bailey's Ringling Brothers Circus.
"I could not pay proper tribute to Chuck Leonard's career without telling you how very good he was at reading copy and voiceovers.
"He developed a :30 and a :60 clock in his head. He voiced products, to name a few, such as Panasonic, Noxzema, Coca-Cola, The Wiz and VIM stores. He was one of the first to voice the USA network when it went on the air. He worked with Saturday Night Live's producer Lorne Michaels and voiced Friday Night Videos on NBC.
"On Robert Stigwood's movie "Times Square" he performed the on-radio voices in the film, both as himself and imitating other performers' styles.
At the end of that decade, June 30, 1989, he took his show to WBLS, where he was hired to do the 7 to 11 p.m. show.
"New decade, new station. Eventually he was on every shift of the clock at the station and again back to mornings.
"He said he loved doing a morning show because of the high energy and the chance to use his journalism skills, but he always hated waking up for it.
Chucks career hit a rough patch in February 1995. He had developed a rare bacterial lung infection and was hospitalized for five weeks. Then he faced a long recuperation at home. He quit smokingagainbut this time it worked. He never smoked another cigarette, even after being diagnosed with lung cancer October 31, 2003.
"Before we married he warned me that his chosen career was an insecure one. He said, 'You know how you can tell who is the highest paid disc jockey? He's the one with the largest moving van.
"Well, his career was steady enough that we never had to leave New York City, but after he was sick and off the air for almost a year in 1995, he found it difficult to settle anywhere.
"He was back on the air in the spring 1996 at WQEW-AM, playing standards from the American songbook. He loved the challenge of learning about the music and background stories of the musicians. For a couple of years, life was good again - until the Disney Company bought the station and everybody on the staff was released.
"There was a rally around the fact that New York City radio needed a station to play the standards of swing, jazz, Broadway, etc.
"So a businessman stepped up and funded a station broadcasting from the second floor of an ancient building in the Village. This endeavor was called Sunny and lasted long enough for us to have two really good Christmas parties at the Puck Building. Then the gentleman sold the station and it now broadcasts in Chinese.
"All the time he worked with the Standard stations, Chuck had kept ties with WBLS, working weekends, fill-ins and overnights. I don't know how he kept the call letters and the formats separate, but he did. "Chuck was a wise man. He knew that you couldn't always control the circumstances of your life. You can, however, control your attitude.
"Another of my favorite Chuckisms: "You can go through life kicking and screaming or laughing and scratching.
One of his favorite sign-offs was: "Have a good day - unless, of course, you've made other plans."
"We made it through another decade in radio, and now came the new century and a new radio station.
"Chuck had heard a rumor about satellite radio - the new frontier. He jumped right on this new challenge, researched it, put tapes together, scheduled meetings at Sirius and landed not one, but two shows there.
"He was heard nationwide on both Soul Review and Swing Street. He again had all the enthusiasm that he must have had in the early days of his career.
"And that smile in his voice on the radio? I think his mom, Alma, helped him out a lot with his attitude.
"I heard that she didn't like his first publicity shots at WABC. She said that his smile was too tentative. Alma told him not to half-step.
"She said, 'If you're going to smile, then make sure that smile starts at your butt and shines up all the way through your eyes.
"I think that The Smile was a choice that Chuck made every day when he looked at himself in the mirror while shaving. A few days before he died, Chuck said he was tired of being sick. The Smile was gone and his body soon followed."
Chuck said in college friends called him, "Jack Frost, because I was so cool." Chuck Leonard, Interview with musicradio77.com, Nov. 29, 2002
Glenn Morgan, former program director musicradio77 WABC, e-mail, Aug. 29, 2005
Good friend. Hip. Intellectual. Sophisticated. Team player. Good times. Those are just a few of the words that come to mind whenever I recall my buddy Chuck Leonard.
Chuck broke the color barrier for all who followed. He was the first African American to cross over from R&B radio to mass appeal, 50,000 watt, clear channel, #1 in the nation, corporate owned radio. But to those who knew Chuck closely, we never saw black or white. We saw Chuck Leonard, the man, the great radio talent, and the guy you just had to like. He was a warm person who you embraced immediately.
Chuck and I became good friends right away when I joined WABC in the summer of 1971. Somehow, we were able to separate the times we spent together after hours as friends, from our professional roles as talent and management. I recall all night parties at Chuck's apartment, being introduced to the latest R&B tunes and falling asleep on his living room floor. Many more good times were shared at the Channel 7 cocktail lounge around the corner from WABC. I had never been to a horse race before I met Chuck. I recall fondly many a day at the races, riding to Belmont or The Preakness in Chuck's Eldorado convertible.
When he attended my wedding, friends and family could not believe they were dancing at the same reception with such a famous star. But Chuck was his usual casual, friendly, approachable self. He never had any airs. Chuck always had a knack for being able to speak with anybody about anything. Chuck also had street smarts. As big a radio star as he became, he never lost touch with the street and the street people. I couldn't believe some of the characters he'd introduce me to.
Around 1981, Chuck was one of the first people I knew who had a personal computer. Not just with music, but whatever was cutting edge at any given time, Chuck was always ahead of everybody else. Joining Sirius Satellite Radio demonstrated his continuing quest for new technology, his ability to change when listeners' tastes changed, and his staying power as a superstar radio talent.
One of my greatest honors was being asked to write his obituary and speak at Chuck Leonard's wake. Some of the best talents in radio, from diverse ethnic backgrounds, eulogized about how Chuck had influenced their lives and careers. His wife and daughters spoke about what a devoted husband and father he was. We learned that Chuck was very active in his church. I join the many people who look back and say man, I am so fortunate to have known Chuck Leonard.
"Get that special guy to give you one of those rings. You don't have a special guy? Well, buy one of those rings for yourself and tell everyone else you got it from a guy." Chuck Leonard doing a live commercial for Bush's Jewelers on musicradio77 WABC, Dec. 25, 1970
Former Musicradio 77 WABC evening air personality Cousin Brucie, Interview with
musicradio77.com, July 25, 2005
"Chuck was the party guy of broadcasting," Cousin Brucie said.
"He also was not only extremely bright, but had tremendous energy and a very positive attitude," he added. "He would pitch in and do things. He'd never said, 'I'll get back to you later.' Chuck also was very interested in people and their interests and their problems," he said.
"I can't believe that Chuck is not there anymore," he added. "He was so vibrant. There are certain people that you never think of dying and Chuck was one of those people." "He had a rich, free laugh," Brucie said.
"He was very smooth on the air, had good mechanics and loved the music," he said.
"Chuck loved the night," he said. "He thrived in the evening and the show that he had was very appropriate for his persona."
Brucie said that he called Chuck in August 1965 to offer him the job at WABC. He said that he was listening to WWRL with Rick Slkar, the WABC program director. "I told Rick that I would call him.
"It was tough for him, being an African-American on such a big station," Brucie said. "However, he passed all the tests."
"I called him Lucky Chucky," he recalled. "That was an appropriate name."
"He always dressed immaculately," Brucie said. "He was the neatest person I probably have known."
"He used sit on a high stool and sometimes he would stand at the microphone during his show," Brucie recalled. "It was like he was always ready to run.
"On Aug. 7, 1974, it was my final broadcast on WABC and after more than thirteen years at that GOLDEN microphone, it was finally coming to an end. Dozens of my friends and recording artists called in and gathered at the studio giving the audience their feelings. It gained much steam and emotion until with about an hour and a half to go. it became to much for me to continue.
Radio has a very emotional family tie when taken seriously (and as you know I do)...I remember that my throat started to get tight and I was really having trouble talking. Chucky immediately recognized this and told me to go somewhere and take it easy.
"He was the most compassionate of beings and a true professional. Chuck continued my last show for me and gave me a chance to gather myself together. This was a tough thing to do for any performer and Chuck carried it off perfectly, with dignity and compassion."
"Must admit it's exciting here. And I'm one of the guys who makes the excitement happen for you. My name's Chuck Leonard, and I've got the goodies. Let's do it, to it." Chuck Leonard on WABC, talking over the musical intro to "Cinnamon," by Derek, Jan. 9, 1969
Former Musicradio 77 morning personality Herb Oscar Anderson, Interview with
musicradio77.com, June 27, 2005
"Being black was tough in a way for Chuck. It was a case after a while that everyone had their one black personality. But that wasn't the case with Chuck. He had a lot of talent."
"This is Chuck Leonard, sneakin' it to you." Chuck Leonard's traditional sign off to Sneak Previews on the American Contemporary Network.
Former musicradio77 WABC air personality, Frank Kingston Smith, e-mail, Mar.
"Chuck used to fly to Las Vegas for two days (usually a Thursday and Friday) taking the midnight redeye out of New York and the redeye back on Saturday night.
"One Sunday morning after having gotten off the air at 3 a.m., I got this phone call from Chuck. He was stuck in Chicago; the plane had a mechanical problem.
"He asked me to cover his shift, and he would be in before 2 p.m. to do my shift. I dragged myself into Manhattan, went on the air and during the 1:54:30 p.m. network news, in walked Chuck. I got up, he moved the high chair in and said to me: "And I was ahead!"
"When I left to go back to Boston, I had this uncut sheet of Jack Davis illustrations of the WABC air personalities. Chuck signed his: 'Keep the faith; spread it gently.' I think that said it pretty well."
"I believe I have photos of Chuck, Bruce and me on elephants riding to the Long Island Coliseum for the circus. While riding, the handlers on the ground kept jabbing the elephants with their point sticks.
"Chuck hollers down, 'Doesn't that annoy them? The guys says, 'Yeah, a little. Chuck said, 'What do they do if they get mad? "They throw something,' the guy said. "Like what," Chuck asked.
"The guy said, 'Whatever is handy.'
"Chuck thought for a moment, and realizing that he was the handiest thing the elephant could throw, said, 'Don't do that.
"Thanks for listening, music lovers."
"I have to confess, I am one of the few Americans who liked, or will admit to liking a lot of the disco era, because I thought it was a fun period of music. Disco did make you want to dance, and I liked it. Everything doesn't have to be serious." Chuck Leonard, interview with musicradio77.com, Nov. 29, 2002
Former musicradio77 WABC newscaster Bob Hardt, e-mail, Aug. 31, 2005
"He was the most good natured, unflappable man I have ever known in broadcasting. I hardly ever remember Chuck without a smile on his face and in his voice as well. He was easy and fun to work with.
" He could always roll with the punch and come out sounding like the pro he was whenever something went wrong. Years after we worked together at WABC, I loved listening to him on WQEW as I drove home from work late at night. Different music, different format, the same Chuck Leonard."
"Oh, I can dig this. 28 minutes after 11, WABC music time. It's the pride of Brooklyn town. Yeah, brother Neilie, gonna do it, all about the bad blood." Chuck Leonard, WABC, Nov. 2, 1975, introducing the number one hit of the week - Bad Blood, by Neil Sedaka.
Former musicradio77 WABC morning personality, Harry Harrison, written
statement, July 6, 2005
"Chuck Leonard was a classy guy, a great human being and a talented air personality.
He was from the south side of Chicago, Ill., and so was I. I found that out when I went to 77 [WABC].
"I did mornings at WABC and Chuck was on at night, so we wouldn't see each other often on the job.
"I always found him to be friendly and pleasant when we did share time together.
I had known that he had some health problems but I was shocked and saddened when I heard he had passed away.
My son, Patrick, and I attended a memorial mass and service in the church where Chuck and his wife, Pamela, were parishioners.
Family, friends, co-workers, and many listeners were there.
We all said that Chuck was a special person and was remembered with love and admiration by the priests and congregation. Chuck and his wife, Pamela, were very well known and active in the altruistic work of the parish."
"The best that ever did it and got away with it. Chuck Leonard here, baby." Chuck Leonard, musicradio77 WABC, Sept. 9, 1974
Chuck Leonard on WABC
WABC Musicradio 77 Home Page